Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Empty Graves and Empty Boats
At her grandfather’s grave, RACHEL NEUMANN’s anger
erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? There’s no
one to blame when an empty boat rams into you, and in the end we are all just empty boats bumping against each other.
There are as many different kinds of anger as there are
waves in the ocean. When my older daughter gets angry, there is a deluge of
tears. As I watch, she goes limp and sobs into the floor with the unfairness of
it all. My younger daughter’s anger is a tornado of hits, kicks, and screams.
She can’t be comforted, reasoned, or carried out of the storm until it has run
its course. My partner’s anger is quiet and sullen, thick as the southern
Mississippi air. Only a slam of the door or a fist on the table occasionally
punctuates the silence. Me? I shake with a blaming, seething anger, full of my
own righteousness and ready to enumerate the faults of everyone around me.
I’ve always been a blamer. Sometimes, I blame World War II
for this. Our family’s survival was tenuous, the exception rather than the
expectation. If almost all of our relatives hadn’t been killed, then perhaps I
wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. Sometimes, I blame Western culture,
capitalism, sexism, and all of the institutions that keep us separated and
thinking we have to go it alone. Sometimes, I blame myself.
Growing up, I was pretty sure the world would fall apart if
I didn’t check that we had food, take care of my little sister, and make sure
the front door was locked. Our whole family’s survival felt like my
responsibility and mine alone. Even after I left home, whenever I got
overwhelmed in relationships or at work, my mind would return to this well-worn
path: “Why do I, alone, have to do everything?”
When I was seven I went to visit extended family in La
Jolla, California. Every morning we would walk to the beach, where the waves
were small but restless. They would crash against the shore, retreat to gather
force, and then crash again. The man I was staying with would let the waves
beat against his ankles. Then, as they receded, he would say to them, “Are you
mad?” drawing out the last word to make me laugh. Blaming is like those waves
hitting the shore over and over again. It hits a contradicting reality, disintegrates,
and then gathers force again.
There is a parable about blame first recorded by the Chinese
mystic Huang Tzu more than three hundred years ago. Imagine you are in a
rowboat on a lake. It is a beautiful calm day, and you are enjoying the peacefulness
of the moment. But then you notice there is another boat heading straight
toward you. You shout, “Look out!” and wave your arms, but the boat keeps
coming. You try to steer out of the way, but it’s too late. You keep shouting,
but the boat keeps coming. It rams into you, knocking you into the water. You
are cold, wet, and your beautiful day—your serenity—is ruined.
“What are you doing?” you yell at the driver of the other
boat. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Then you look into the other boat.
It is empty.
This story helps remind me that the bumps aren’t personal.
We’re all just empty boats bumping up against each other. But even knowing no
one’s inside, I usually find myself peering in, looking for a culprit. People
should remember to tie up their empty rowboats or, if they are tied up, to tie
How do I undo a lifetime of blaming habit? I’ve found there
are only two effective antidotes: gratitude and co-responsibility. But
gratitude is a tricky emotion. As soon as I think I’m supposed to feel
it, as soon as I catch a whiff of even the slightest hint of obligation, any
gratitude I might have felt is replaced immediately with resentment. So I was
taken off guard when, a couple of years ago, I came across the Kataññu Sutta,
a Pali teaching on gratitude. It says: “Even if you were to carry your mother
on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for a hundred years, and
you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their
limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there on your shoulders, you
would not in that way pay or repay your parents.”
This no-excuses, go-ahead-and-pee-on-my-shoulders type of
gratitude is so counterintuitive to my well-worn and boring rut of blaming that
I’ve made a conscious decision to move toward it. After all, what if it didn’t
matter who locked the door or made the dinner? I am here, alive, and healthy,
and I could not have gotten here on my own.
Recently, when I was getting over the flu, my mother came
over for dinner. In the morning, I’d set the table and prepped some food. After
work, I picked up the kids, took them to an after-school class, and got
groceries. When I arrived home, I tripped over my mother’s shoes. She was
sitting on the couch, checking her email. Bob Marley was blaring from our
stereo. Her jacket and half-eaten snacks were on the floor, and there was a
trail of dirty dishes in each room. I carried in the grocery bags and started
toward the kitchen.
Putting the lettuce and cucumbers away, I thought, “How like
my mother, to make a mess and not help with dinner. Can’t she see how tired I
am?” It was an old thought and it sounded old in my head, coming out in a
croaky whine. A few months earlier, my mother and her best friend had taken my
older daughter for two whole weeks. My daughter had come back thrilled, full of
stories, and without a scratch. I owe my mother a huge gaping shoulder-carrying
debt of gratitude. And yet my critical mind kept rattling on.
Then I put down the vegetables and I stopped. My father had
arrived, and he and my mother and my partner and children were all talking at
once, interrupting each other to show off various new skills and the day’s
creations. If my mother weren’t so good at taking care of herself, she wouldn’t
be able to be so generous or have the energy or physical ability to take my
older daughter on a trip or hold my younger daughter upside down, as she was
doing now. In that moment, I was flooded with gratitude. There was my loving
partner and my healthy, happy children. There was the delicious dinner I was
about to eat and the fact that my parents were both alive, basically well,
and—though long divorced—able to easily join together for a meal. I was so
thankful I could not speak. I leaned against the kitchen counter. Then my mom
waltzed in. “Anyone need help making a salad?” she asked.
Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me
even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. Lately,
whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising
myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are
partly right.” “You are partly right” means that there is some truth to the
story, but it’s not the whole story. I love this because it acknowledges responsibility
but also acknowledges that each story has more layers than one person can
While “fault” isn’t a particularly useful idea,
“responsibility” is. We humans are intricately and necessarily connected to
each other, not just for our happiness but also for our very existence. If this
is the case, then it makes sense that we are responsible for what happens to
each of us, both the good and the not so good.
What about the really bad things? Those are someone’s fault,
right? The person who hits his small child, the slave owner, the scientists who
designed the gas chambers, the person who sees violence and does nothing,
aren’t they—aren’t we—to blame? If we know who is at fault, maybe we can make
sure that they don’t do it again. But blame doesn’t work that way. Assigning
and taking responsibility provides an opportunity to change. It gives us choice
and power. Blame negates responsibility. It ends the sentence, closing off
I just came back from my first trip to Germany. Soon after I
arrived in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust memorial, a central city block of
rectangular concrete slabs. A tour bus stopped and a gaggle of teenagers got
out, jumping on the stones, laughing and taking pictures of each other with
Next, I visited the grave of the man I used to walk with on
the beach in La Jolla. A week before leaving for Germany, I’d learned that this
man was really my father’s biological father, my biological grandfather. My
father had lived with him for years, believing that this man was a family
friend. This man never told him the truth and never acted like a father to him.
He died without ever calling him “son.”
I knew none of my other grandparents and would have liked to
have known I had a grandfather, especially this man I used to walk with along
the beach. I was sad, but I didn’t get angry until I saw his grave.
He was buried in an old cemetery in the heart of West
Berlin. The site was chosen long after his death, after his cremated ashes had
been ignored in the storeroom of an East Coast funeral home for years. Even
though he had been forced to leave Germany, he often went back after the war
ended and still felt at home there. The graveyard was chosen in part because he
had friends buried nearby.
It took me two buses, a walk, and some mangled German
conversations with strangers for me to find the cemetery. It was late afternoon
when I arrived, and in the fading light, I missed the posted map and couldn’t
find his grave. As I walked along the gray tombstones and dark shadows from the
chestnut trees, I started to feel a creeping panic. What if I couldn’t find it?
What if I had to leave without ever seeing him again? If I couldn’t find his
grave, I’d be left in the woods. Alone. Lost.
I was getting ready to leave when some pale light on the
flat top of one of the cement stones caught my eye. Up against a wall in the
far corner of the cemetery, I saw the black scrawl of his name.
Anger, my familiar furious blaming anger filled me. We had
so few relatives. How could this man have lived with my father and said
nothing? How could he have left us there all alone? I wanted to yell at
someone, to shake the tombstone until an answer fell out.
But I would have been yelling at an empty grave. My
grandfather was not in there. Even the remains of his body, cremated and long
buried, had been absorbed back into the earth. There was no one to yell at.
There was no one there to blame, just an empty boat.
If my grandfather was
anywhere at all, he was in me. We have the same nose, the same genetic
material, the same tendency toward logical argument, and the same love of the
ocean. I also inherited, from him as well as others, the same seeds of anxiety
and fear. Letting go of blame doesn’t mean I’m letting my grandfather “get
away” with something. I’m responsible now for what secrets I continue to keep,
what blame I pass on.
Someone had left fresh chestnuts on the top of the grave
and, amid them, a dying red rose and some polished stones. I picked up one of
the smooth brown nuts. Even in the last of the light, it was gleaming, full to
bursting with the seed within. I rolled it between my fingers, then returned it
to the top of the stone. Evening had fully arrived and the sky was dark, the
air cold. I left the cemetery empty-handed and walked lightly, but not alone.